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Siena - Italy - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Fabian Cancellara (Suisse / Trek Factory Racing) - Peter Sagan (Slowakia / Team Tinkoff - Tinkov) over take Gianluca Brambilla (Italie / Team Etixx - Quick Step) at the 300 meter sign pictured during Strade Bianche men 2016 - photo LB/RB/Cor Vos © 2016

Best Training Intervals For Climbers

Toolbox: If you’re preparing for an event with some major climbing this season, or if you simply want to improve your climbing ability in general, you probably already know that you need to build your power-to-weight ratio. The more watts you can sustain and the less you weigh, the faster you will be able go uphill.  Use these climbing intervals to build your best climbing engine.

Geraardsbergen - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Tom Boonen (Belgium / Team Omega Pharma - Quickstep) lost contact on the Bosberg climb pictured during tstage - 5 of the ENECO Tour 2014, a worldtour stage race in the Netherlands and Belgium - photo Cor Vos © 2014
Tom Boonen on the Bosberg

I cannot tell you the number of times people have asked me, “How can I climb better?” I have a very simple answer: pedal harder! This is, of course, easier said than done.

Your power-to-weight ratio is how many watts you can produce divided by your weight. What are typical w/kg ranges? They’re pretty broad. A WorldTour pro can typically climb at or slightly above 6.0 w/kg, and a mid-category racer can typically climb from 3.5-4.0 w/kg. The average recreational cyclist can fall in a wide range, but 2.5-3.5 w/kg is a solid generalization. Of course, a top pro doesn’t just do this once when they’re fresh, but can do this on the last climb after a 5 h climbing stage.

A popular measurement of the result of w/kg is VAM, which is an abbreviation for the Italian term velocità ascensionale media, translated into English to mean average ascent speed or mean ascent velocity. It is simply the rate of elevation gain, usually stated in meters per hour. For an average cyclist, climbing medium-range climbs at a VAM of 1,000 m/h is a pretty good goal. If you want to improve your climbing VAM, you need to increase your w/kg by losing weight, building power, or both.

We’ll spend most of our time looking at the power side of the equation, but let’s take a moment to talk about weight. The lighter you are, the faster you go uphill, but it’s important to note there is a point of diminishing returns.

I’ll offer two tips on weight. First, remove all the fads and hype of diets and the weight-loss process. At the end of the day, it’s all about calories in vs. calories out. Determine your daily calorie need, add the number of calories you burn in your daily workouts to set a goal, and then consume slightly fewer calories than that total. Don’t overthink it.

Second, a proper blend of macronutrients is very important. There are lots of diets out there selling different solutions, but as a performing athlete, a general guideline of 60-65% carbs, around 20% protein, and 20% fats is a pretty good blend. I tend to periodize my approach to macronutrients, but that’s a topic for another day.

Now let’s talk power. If you want to climb faster, you need to pedal harder, but you also need to think about the demands of the events you’re preparing for. I group events with climbs into three categories: short and punchy, mid-range, and sustained. Let’s take a look at each of these.

Short and sharp – The final climb in Strade Bianche

Short and punchy
These power climbs range from 1-5 minutes and require near-max to max-power outputs to succeed. Events often repeat this type of climb with painful frequency, and success requires high anaerobic capacity, VO2max, and strength. Training for these climbs is painful, as you need to focus on climbing intervals at maximal intensities to improve your anaerobic capability as well as your supporting aerobic power.

Favorite Workout: Power Threes
Warm up for 10-20 minutes of progressively harder efforts with some fast pedaling to get the legs ready.

Intervals: On a hill of 4-10% grade, complete 5 x 3-minute maximal efforts with 3 minutes of rest between. Depending on your fitness, you can do up to 7 intervals, but 5 is a good starting point. To complete these intervals, stand and pedal hard for 30 seconds, then complete as much as you can of the last 2:30 seated (you can stand some if you need to do so to maintain power on a grade). The goal of each interval is a max effort, so this means that the power probably drops on each interval, but don’t give up if it does; complete at least 5.

Cool down with an easy ride home.

Mid Range Climbs
This type of climb ranges from 5-20 minutes and, depending on the frequency of the climbs in the event, tends to be completed at a power range just below, right at, or just above FTP. This means your training preparation must focus on enhancing your ability to make power aerobically and anaerobically while improving your lactate tolerance, increasing not only FTP but also anaerobic capacity as the extra boost from that system really matters. This again means intervals, but the power output targets need to be at or just above threshold. For this type of climbing, I like to focus on developing maximal aerobic power and increase of VO2max as the key goals, as events with this type of climbs tend to be won by those who can sustain longer efforts above threshold.

Favorite Workout: Supra Tens
Warm up for 10-20 minutes of progressively harder efforts with some fast pedaling to get the legs ready.

Intervals: On a hill of 4-7% grade, complete 2 x 10-minute intervals with 10 minutes of rest between. The supra interval builds your supra threshold through VO2max improvements. Each interval is two parts. The first 2 minutes are a standing VO2max effort at 120% of FTP, followed by 8 minutes seated and right at your FTP. Pedal easy for the rest period. If your fitness is high, you can complete up to 4 of these in a session.

Cool down with an easy ride home.

Chambéry - France - wielrennen - cycling - cyclisme - radsport - Warren BARGUIL (France / Team Sunweb) pictured during the 104th Tour de France 2017 - stage 9 from Nantua to Chambéry, 181.50 km - foto VK/PN/Cor Vos © 2017
Warren Barguil on the road to Chambéry during the 2017 Tour de France

Sustained Climbs
These are the big ones! These climbs are usually 20-60 minutes or longer and require a steady, sustained power output to achieve success. Your training focus for an event with these climbs should be on raising FTP and increasing aerobic power outputs and fatigue resistance. You’ll need to be prepared for a significant amount of training at higher and more intensive aerobic power ranges such as tempo, sweet spot, and threshold. I would also add that riders in events with longer, sustained climbs are the ones who tend to benefit the most from increasing their training volume.

Favorite Workout: Fatigue Resistant Sweet Spot
Warm up for 10-20 minutes of progressively harder efforts with some fast pedaling to get the legs ready.

Intervals: First complete at least 90 minutes of solid endurance riding, then complete 2 x 20 minutes of SST work at 90% of your FTP. Rest for only 5 minutes between intervals. These should be done on a steady climb or extended flats that will allow you to complete the interval without interruption. If you’re fit enough, you can add a standing surge of 10-15 seconds every 5 minutes.

Cool down with an easy ride home.

Strength Training
When training for any of these types of climbs, I suggest that you consider adding strength training to your schedule. More and more studies are demonstrating that strength training is beneficial to cyclists, and I believe it helps support climbing ability via core strength and muscular capacity (be careful of weight gain, though). It’s important to blend proper strength training into your periodized training plan. I like to build strength in the base period and focus on maintenance and functional strength within the season without neglecting this area.

Tracking the Results
There are two key metrics I track to gauge training success and event W/kg and VAM: the power output and the ability to translate that power into velocity or speed. Take a look at the simple TrainingPeaks WKO4 chart below; it tracks VAM for 1, 5, and 10 kilometers for a WorldTour pro over a short lead-up time to a grand tour. You can see that even though there was not a dramatic change in modeled FTP, the rider was consistently improving the 20-minute peak W/kg and climbing speed for each of the listed distance ranges. Tracking this type of data gives insight into the effectiveness of the training strategy and the athletes capacity to translate it into VAM.

The Mental Game
Last but not least, you need to train your brain. Success in climbing events often comes down to how much you’re willing to suffer. All training is done to elicit both a physiological and psychological effect; by learning to go hard in training, we prepare ourselves to go harder in events. Train your mind as you do your interval training. Set a goal for each interval set and maintain positive mentality.

About Tim:
Tim Cusick is the TrainingPeaks WKO4 Product Development Leader, specializing in data analytics and performance metrics for endurance athletes. In addition to his role with TrainingPeaks, Tim is a USAC coach with over 10 years experience working with both road and mountain bike professionals around the world. You can reach Tim for comments at [email protected] [email protected] To learn more about TrainingPeaks and WKO4 visit us at TrainingPeaks.com.

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